The more I see of foreign countries, the less I like my
Cities visited by Berlioz
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The citation at the top of this page comes from a letter of Berlioz to his uncle Victor Berlioz dated 26 November 1848 – the year of the revolutions which swept over Europe, a year that was also personally traumatic for Berlioz with the death of his father on 28 July (Correspondance Générale no. 1238, hereafter CG for short; for the phrase cf. also nos. 282, 1131). He goes on to comment:
[…] These wanderings across Europe […] have developed in me the taste for travel which I have always had, and I never feel more at home in France than when I come back the day before I am due to leave again.
Berlioz’s life is punctuated by travels connected with his career as composer and musician – his trip to Italy in 1831-1832 to fulfill the requirements of the Prix de Rome competition he won in 1830; his major tours of Germany and central Europe in 1842-3 and 1845-6; his trips to Russia in 1847 and 1867-8; his five visits to London between 1847 and 1855; and an intermittent series of visits of varying duration to German cities between 1852 and 1867. In comparison the record of Berlioz’s musical travels in France outlined in the chronology below appears remarkably sketchy.
One major reason for this was the overwhelming artistic domination of Paris over the rest of France at this time, in contrast to the German-speaking world. In Germany in Berlioz’s time the political fragmentation of the country encouraged a remarkable proliferation of artistic centres, some of them of great vitality, depending on the initiative of local authorities and princes. A glance at the long list of German cities visited by Berlioz during his career is enough to show this. But in France Paris put the rest of the country in the shadow (much as London did with Britain: Berlioz never visited any city in Britain apart from London). What is more, Paris had a unique position in the European world of the time. Berlioz’s feelings towards Paris were notoriously ambivalent, but he could never break his links with it. ‘It is in Paris that our art is sometimes sunk in a dull torpor, and sometimes in full ferment; it is there that it is at once sublime and mediocre, proud and abject, a beggar and a king; there that it is exalted and despised, adored and insulted; there that you will find loyal, enthusiastic, intelligent and devoted followers, but there also that too often it speaks to the deaf, to idiots, and to savages’ (Memoirs, Travels to Germany I, Letter 10). But in spite of it all, for Berlioz Paris was ‘the centre of gravity of the musical world and of all possible worlds’, as he writes to his uncle Marmion towards the end of his first trip to Germany (CG no. 823ter [in vol. VIII], 30 March 1843). It is well known how Berlioz was reluctant to accept offers to settle permanently abroad: he refused a concrete offer in Vienna in 1846, and hesitated in 1854 in Dresden (though this latter possibility eventually lapsed).
Berlioz’s musical forays in France outside Paris were therefore few and far between. He started thinking of musical travels in France as early as 1833, but in practice they had to wait till a later date, in 1845, after his first major trip to Germany. In that year Berlioz may have conceived the idea of a musical tour of the major French cities: a visit to Marseille in June was followed by one to Lyon in July. At the same time Berlioz was exploring the possibility of visits to Bordeaux and to Lille. But other priorities intervened – a visit to Bonn in August and the start of a second major trip to Germany and central Europe in October. The trip to Lille only took place the following year, after his return from central Europe, and the trip to Bordeaux did not take place till 1859. There never was any grand ‘Voyage musical en France’ comparable to those in Germany, central Europe, or Russia. Provincial French cities did not have the resources to justify this, and in his eyes they lacked status. At this point one may quote the Memoirs (end of chapter 53):
The opportunity arose [in June 1845] to go and relax once more in the soothing waters of the Mediterranean, thanks to two concerts I was invited to give in Marseille and Lyon, the proceeds of which were bound to cover in part the expenses of the trip. I was thus led for the first time to perform my compositions in some of the French provinces.
The letters I addressed in 1848 in the Gazette musicale to my colleague Édouard Monnais, give, in spite of their light-hearted presentation, an accurate record of what happened to me in this southern excursion, as well as in one I did to Lille not long after. They are collected under the title of Academic Correspondence in my book Les Grotesques de la musique.
Berlioz is warning his readers: the literary presentation is deliberate and significant. He is playing down the importance of his musical excursions in France; in his eyes they do not have the seriousness of his travels elsewhere, especially those in Germany and central Europe, and do not deserve to be treated in the same way. They are thus excluded from the Memoirs and consigned to a less weighty work, the Grotesques de la musique, in which the keynote is irony.
(October) Projected visit to Lyon to give a concert in November or December
(January-February) Successful performances of the Francs-Juges overture in Dijon, Douai, and Lille, but the work proves too difficult for the orchestra in Marseille (CG nos. 486, 493)
(25 June) Performance of the Lacrymosa from the Requiem under Habeneck at Lille (Memoirs ch. 47)
(January-February) Berlioz is unable to accept the suggestion of
Paganini that he should participate in two concerts in Marseille
(28 March) The Revue Musicale announces a performance of the Francs-Juges overture in Montpellier
(November) Berlioz is asked to conduct a festival at Lille in December (CG no. 736)
(February) Berlioz is asked to organise a large festival in Bordeaux in September
(February) Berlioz considers participating in a festival in Lyon
in May; the plan does not materialise
(October) Berlioz considers going to Rouen to give a concert (CG no. 856)
(November) Projected performance in Marseille of the Chant sacré which Berlioz had just orchestrated
(May) Berlioz is apparently invited to give a concert in Lyon
(October) Plans for a concert in Châlons-sur-Saône (CG no. 922)
(February-April) Plans for a festival in Châlons-sur-Saône in
which Berlioz would be involved (CG nos. 939, 956; cf. 976)
(June) Berlioz travels to Marseille where he gives two concerts (19 & 25 June)
(July) Berlioz travels from Marseille to Lyon where he gives two concerts (20 & 24 July)
(August) Plans for a trip to Bordeaux to give one or more concerts there after the Beethoven Festival in Bonn
(October) Plans for a festival in Lille (CG no. 985)
(14 June) Berlioz gives a concert in Lille which includes the first performance of the specially-written cantata Chant des chemins de fer
(29 October) Berlioz conducts a concert in the opera hall of Versailles château
(30 June) Performance of the Lacrymosa from the Requiem under Girard at Lille
(February) A proposal for concerts in Bordeaux falls through
(3 March) Performance in Lyon under George Hainl of a fragment from La Fuite en Égypte; Berlioz is annoyed
(March) Berlioz is invited to organise and conduct a festival in Toulouse in August, but the plan quickly falls through (CG nos. 2283, 2286)
(8 June) Berlioz conducts a concert in Bordeaux
(15-23 June) Berlioz travels to Strasbourg to give a performance of L’Enfance du Christ (22 June)
(April-May) Berlioz refuses an invitation to serve on a jury to judge choral competitions in Bayonne (CG nos. 2849, 2858, 2867)
(26 August) Berlioz presides over a choral competition at Épernay (CG nos. 3156, 3157)
(14-16 August) Berlioz visits Grenoble to act as honorary president of a competition for the Orphéon Choral Society, and to attend the inauguration of the statue of Napoleon I
See also Berlioz and Marseille: friends and acquaintances
(Nice changed hands many times throughout its history; for much of Berlioz’s lifetime the city was part of Italy. The Treaty of 24 March 1860, voted on by the people of France, returned Nice to France, this time for good.)
La Côte Saint-André
Index of letters of Berlioz cited
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb on 18
The Berlioz and France page created on 1 November 2006.
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